CHESTER >> The path towards a masterplan for the West End waterfront took another step this week when representatives from architectural firm NBBJ visited town for a series of community stakeholder meetings.

Riverfront Alliance of Delaware County, city government and Philadelphia Union parent company Keystone Sports and Entertainment LLC announced in October that the Boston-firm received the contract to design a redevelopment plan for the area surrounding Talen Energy Stadium and the Wharf at Rivertown office complex.

Kathryn Firth, urban design director, and Chris Herlich, urban design, planning and geodesign associate, held public meetings Thursday evening and Friday morning at Chester City Hall and closed-door focus groups and individual meetings. They will return Dec. 12 at a to-be-determined venue for a townhall-style presentation of their initial findings. RADC officials told the Times in October that the plan is slated for a June completion date.

“We’ve learned a lot, because although we do our own research, there are oral histories that you can’t get (remotely),” said Firth after the Friday public meeting. “We can go look at GIS (geographic information system) and now we know where the utility lines are; that’s not the same as understanding a multi-generation history of a piece of the city.”

Topics discussed at the Friday morning session included casual dining and bars, fitness centers, housing, connecting the riverwalk to the East Coast Greenway, and an educational component with the ecological features of the area. “People are very forthcoming,” said Herlich. “I’ve taken seven pages of notes since the middle of yesterday afternoon.”

The pair said the project will benefit from the enthusiasm they encountered from residents and business and civic figures during their visit. “We’ve worked in communities where people are sort of ambivalent, and that is not the situation here. The enthusiasm and the passion is fantastic,” said Firth. “I’ll be honest, when we walk or drive around Chester it feels like a place that had the best of times but this is not that moment. What we’re learning is there are a lot of amazing things that happened here and the people are amazing. The people want to support each other and make this work.” 

The firm has experience in both riverfront and stadium-area development in cities comparable in size to Chester along with larger markets including Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. “We’re still figuring out what the right precedents are,” said Herlich. “We want to make sure that we’re not looking too big or too small … what happens here has to be unique to Chester.”

“We’re seen the move from an industrial waterfront to a waterfront that becomes part of a community,” said Firth. “Pittsburgh has a stadium … if there are any lessons to be learned … it is that it’s never just one thing that’s going to be the magic bullet. When industry leaves a place, it has to have more than singular draw point or attraction.”

Chicago-based Hunden Strategic Advisors, an economic developing consulting practice, is assisting NBBJ in the project and has experience in cities where “there’s been an impetus to see spots and athletics as an initial driver.” The firm is currently doing its own stakeholder research. “(Hunden) have an understanding of what are the kind of companion activities that can go with that to make sure a place isn’t just alive for the 20 days a year when you have a game on, but how does it have a kind of year round presence,” Firth said.

NBBJ is looking at temporary and short-term use activities on the site to boost interest in permanent development, according to Herlich. “It seems like this is a wonderful place, and one of the biggest challenges facing it is perception,” he said. “I think perception and reality are not perfectly aligned here. Having things that are event-based, things that are bringing in the existing community or revealing the existing community, are great opportunities to do that.”

The proposed short-term uses could help break what Firth called a chicken-or-egg situation for redevelopment in areas facing high crime rates, reduced populations and other public safety concerns.

“People don’t feel that safe in a place that doesn’t have a population, but you want to get the population there because it feels safe – you’ve got eyes on the street, people around,” she said.

“I was using the phrase ‘pioneering’ in some of our conversations,” Firth said. The first residential and business tenants will be tasked with maintaining the new mixed-use development activity in the area that had been dominated by industry for decades, according to Firth. “There has to be that investment. It isn’t enough to just plunk an apartment building down there and say ‘OK, now we’ll just let the rest happen.’ You need that infrastructure,” she said.


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